Banning Ideas From Public Discourse Doesn’t Just Make Them Go Away

It only makes them go away together.

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(photo: Mike MacKenzie)

Closing Pandora’s Box?

Ranging from the merely problematic to the downright incendiary, deeply unpopular ideas are more and more visible in today’s technological society.

What should we do about them?

Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry, prejudice: Far from being products of our modern age, discriminatory attitudes have always existed. The only difference is that now social media, internet news, opinion and commentary sites, and other online communities are making it easier than ever for people to express themselves. All the people.

That isn’t all good. And it was never going to be.

It is a reckoning, long overdue. It involves the facing of cruel truths about our society, our attitudes, and our collective history. In the recent past, it was far easier to ignore these divisions. Now, it is difficult to turn away.

Especially when certain viewpoints, unpopular and socially unacceptable perspectives that violate the values of civilized people, erupt into mass-casualty violence and terrorist attacks.

What are we to do with these dangerous ideas? How does society prevent such festering hatred from escalating into violent crimes against real people?

How to we prevent the merely offensive from becoming the catastrophic?

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Activists from By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and Refuse Fascism hold signs and speak on the sidewalk outside Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley. September 2017. (photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Interrupting the Pattern of Radicalization

Recognizing and interrupting the patterns of radicalization before anyone gets hurt is the key to how to handle dangerous ideas.

Believing society can stop radicalization before it starts by restricting access and banning content designated as “hate” implies that restricting access to these ideas is even possible. Shut one site down, another will take its place. White nationalists, jihadists and violent anti-Semites will always find a way to spread their hateful message to the vulnerable and disaffected.

They always have.

Banning content deemed hateful implies that certain unpleasant ideas can somehow be purged from society. They can’t.

One alternative would be to keep the would-be radicalized firmly in the fold of public discourse, encouraged to share and debate their views openly.

If the reasonable can stand the sheer aggravation of it, this is a tremendous opportunity to expose young, disaffected and impressionable minds clouded by hate to alternative viewpoints, logical arguments and healthy debate.

On the other hand, banishing unpopular ideas from public discourse sends all the hateful, racist, bigoted, xenophobic, homophobic away. Together. To discuss their terrible beliefs only with those who agree with them. Without any input from anyone who disagrees.

Are we sure this will help?

Shooting the Messenger

Silencing someone communicates the message that you don’t like what they say; it doesn’t send the message that they are wrong, which is the message they most need to hear.

For every troublesome white nationalist we see, there are more we don’t see.

Far from angering us, when one of these extremist broadcasts something hateful to all and sundry, we should thank them. These chatty Cathys are, in fact, breaking rank. They are airing the collective dirty laundry of a larger group that would much prefer to nurse their imagined grievances in private.

Of course, doing so won’t change their mind. So don’t hold back, I say. Say it all. That way, we know exactly who and what we are dealing with…

…and a million people can tell them how and why they’re wrong.

Otherwise, the bigoted and xenophobic say these things only to people who tell them they are right, and everyone drinks the kool-aid. Letting they stay with us means they drink our kool-aid, even if it’s just a sip at a time and they don’t even know they are doing it.

Endangered Ideas

Some people may argue that these ideas are dangerous and therefore must be silenced as a preventative measure. On the contrary, religious and racist extremism are endangered ideas. Like any false idea, its days are numbered.

These ideas are pure poppycock, easily disproven by any number of metrics which can be easily accessed and understood by any school age child.

A dangerous idea is one that is true and, therefore, might really catch on.

When faced with Charles Darwin’s seminal theory of evolution, one minster’s wife was said to quip: “Let us pray it isn’t true. But if it is, let us pray it doesn’t become widely known.”

To the clergy, evolution was a dangerous idea that did indeed catch on. Racism, sexism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia are terrible ideas that are demonstrably false and easily dismantled by almost anyone.

These ideas aren’t as dangerous when included in the public discourse; on the contrary, keeping these ideas in the public discourse helps diffuse the danger of these ideas, exposing the sufferers of these sad delusions to debate and new scientific information on a constant basis.

The truth that all humans are equal is empirically provable: We’ve mapped the human genome. The only way racism holds water is if you are only speaking to people who don’t know or won’t tell you that.

Some might argue that no amount of rational discourse can change a hateful person’s mind. If they were capable of reason, this argument goes, they wouldn’t be hateful.

Not so. People aren’t born racist, or sexist, or anything else. Racists, bigots, homophobes and their ilk believe as they do based on the people and experiences that have shaped them. Poor ones, to be sure.

Exposing these deluded souls to new ideas, other perspectives, reasoned arguments, can help shape their perspective going forward. Not everyone, of course. But some. People change their minds all the time.

Plenty of people love arguing on the internet, anyway. Why not do it for a good cause? One day, the obviously impressionable young budding white nationalist, or jihadist, or anarchist, will hear the one thing that breaks their worldview. But before that happens, they will hear lots of things they don’t like; that is all to the good.

The arguments against ideological or racial hate are logical, empirical, irrefutable; they will prevail.

Not for everyone, of course. Dangerous and disturbed people will always find a way to fixate on something that, in their minds, justifies the violence they want to inflict on the world. Some of the worst online commenters on these subjects, may even be Russian trolls intentionally sowing discord. So we hope, anyway.

In the absence of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, disturbed individuals inflict harm on those closest to them. They kill their wives, girlfriends, children, friends, co-workers.

That these individuals exist is perhaps the best reason not to banish problematic ideas from social discourse. These deranged psychopaths and sociopaths lead the discussions, they populate the most alt-right chat rooms, they incite the greatest number of the unwary impressionable to greater acts of violence and mayhem. They spearhead. Think Charles Manson.

Banishing terrible ideas is like locking juvenile offenders away with hardened lifelong felons. If they weren’t a criminal going in, they will be coming out.

Sending all the racists, bigots, and white nationalists away to talk exclusively amongst themselves, with a few dozen or so Charles Mansons thrown in, and a few foreign nationals trying to stir up trouble, is a recipe for more hatred, not less.

Though it pains us to suffer these odious ideologies in the public sphere, the alternative is isolating them with their fellows together with monsters real and imagined. Pushing the problem out of the public eye will not solve it.

Let me rephrase: Pushing the problem back out of the public eye will not solve it. Doing so will only create an environment more rife for dangerous ideologies to take even deeper root. We banish them; they don’t stay banished.

From their comfortable isolation, deadly online ideologues can continue to radicalize and manipulate the unwary with impunity, with nary a soul to challenge their beliefs or control over acolytes.

The acolytes don’t stay banished, either. Not all of them. The consequences of radicalization are easy to see, and deadly. In isolation, far from public discourse, radicalization finds its most fertile ground.

Who can be brought back into the fold of reason must be. Not wanting ‘those people’ in the fold, even after they’ve seen the light, means you are more interested in punishing racists than ending racism.

Banishing someone because you don’t like their views implies a certain doubt about the merits of your own argument. I have no doubt whatsoever about the moral, spiritual, scientific, social and historical rightness of my sincere belief that every human being is equal. I will explain them to the best of my humble abilities anytime I am called upon to do so.

I don’t expect that one online argument with me, or someone like me, will change the mind of someone in the grip of radicalism. But I know for certain that in the end, the irrefutable, empirical, unassailable rightness of my position will prevail.

One caveat: Mass murderers who publish manifestos do not deserve freedom of speech. Their ravings are dangerous, should not be published, nor shared and should be banned, preferably via burning in effigy.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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